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Tensions Between U.S., North Korea Could Impact NBC’s Investment in Winter Olympics

It’s not hard to imagine a tension-filled scenario on Feb. 9, the first day of opening ceremonies of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

President Donald Trump and the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un might well still be exchanging harsh, rhetorical threats, as they did last week, while the U.S. military ratchets up strength and Kim’s government continues to test-launch missiles.

In six months, the prospects of nuclear brinksmanship will likely still be hanging over an event meant to bring the world together. The 2018 Winter Games are being staged just 40 miles from Korea’s demilitarized zone, the area that separates the north and the south.

Olympic officials express concern over what’s transpiring, while NBC, in the midst of a massive investment for the telecast rights to the Games, keeps a watchful eye on the escalating situation.

“No sports event in the world comes without some security concerns, and we’re paying close attention to this situation,” said Chris McCloskey, spokesman for NBC Sports Group. “As with all Games, we’re in direct contact with numerous security organizations, including the U.S. State Dept., NBCUniversal Global Security, IOC security, the local organizing committee and other government agencies. The safety of our employees is always our No. 1 consideration.”

McCloskey declined to say how many staffers the network is planning to dispatch. For the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, the NBCUniversal team ended up totaling about 2,800 people — roughly 1,500 in production and 1,300 support staff.

The International Olympic Committee put out its own statement, saying that preparations continue to be on track and that it is monitoring the situation on the Korean peninsula and the region “very closely.”

“No sports event in the world comes without some security concerns.”
Chris McCloskey, NBC Sports

Comcast has a huge investment. Its $4.4 billion bid in 2011 won it rights to the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Games, and it paid an additional $7.8 billion for the rights to the Olympics after that through 2032.

A looming international crisis is certainly not unfamiliar territory for the network or the IOC. The ramp-up to the Rio Summer Games last year included the prospect of major disruptions from the
outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil. And ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, attention focused on Vladimir Putin and the passage of anti-LGBT laws, as well as terrorist activity in Chechnya.

In all cases, the recent Games have gone forward, often with backstories of political drama, but without major disruptions.

There are also instances when current events overtook the Olympics. In 1980, the U.S. and other countries boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. NBC paid $87 million for the rights, and reportedly lost $34 million due to the boycott. In 1984, the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies boycotted the Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Richard Pound, an IOC delegate who has helped negotiate broadcast and other rights to the Olympics, said he assumes that NBC, having had experience in Korea with the Summer Games in Seoul in 1988, will take steps to mitigate financial risk.

But on the human side, he noted, “They will have to figure out closer to the time whether the situation is serious enough that they will have to look to alternatives.”

He cautions that with North Korea’s Kim, “you have got at least one unstable leader involved, and you don’t know what he will do.”

Right now, though, Pound added, “unless there is armed conflict going on, we will be in Pyeongchang.” He also pointed to China, which has an interest in making sure that the Games in South Korea go smoothly; in addition to sending a large delegation to the 2018 Games, Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022.

“If [like North Korea], you’re a client state of a country like China, that’s a very powerful” consideration, Pound said.

Of course it’s still too early to gauge whether the situation between the U.S. and North Korea will devolve to the point where there’s a pullback of participation.

It’s also probably too late to move the games — something that actually was done for the 1976 event, when it was moved from Denver to Innsbruck, Austria. But that change was made three years in advance.

“Each host city presents a unique challenge from a security perspective, and as is always the case, we are working with the organizers, the U.S. State Department and the relevant law enforcement agencies to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe,” said Patrick Sandusky, spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee.

The 2018 Olympics have been looked upon as a way to make a show of unity between North and South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed forming a unified team, but that seems unlikely. The IOC has still expressed hopes that North Korean athletes participate — something that would be somewhat of a check against any kind of threat the regime in Pyongyang could make to gain attention during the ceremony.

Those unity efforts also preceded the games in Seoul in 1988, but negotiations failed to produce a co-hosting agreement. North and South Korea did march in the opening ceremonies together in 1992.

North Korean agents planted a bomb that exploded on a South Korean airline flight in 1987, in what one of the culprits said was part of an effort to instill fear in athletes planning to attend the Summer Games.

The Games may be an additional lever for Kim to make threats, and the fear of a war in Korea could deter some athletes from attending, said Sergey Radchenko, professor of international politics at Cardiff University and an expert on Korea.

But he said that the situation is different today than in 1988, when the north and the south “were locked in a contest for legitimacy.” Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, “bent over backwards to have the games canceled, and he failed.”

Kim Jong-un’s “only goal is the survival of his increasingly beleaguered regime, and attacking Pyeongchang is not a means of getting there,” Radchenko said. “But, sure, he will play this card in the run-up to the Olympics to make a possible military action against the North appear even more costly.”

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